Hiding in Plain Sight

As a registration assistant at Winterthur, I’ve walked down the sixth floor hall countless times and never really thought twice about the Williams Room. Who would believe that I would discover a connection to my family tree in that room?

I regularly inventory the 90,000 objects in the Winterthur collection as part of my job. One day my volunteer, Becky Kolpak, and I were inventorying rooms on the sixth floor. Our process involves confirming the objects in the room match with our records of what is supposed to be in that room. With objects constantly moving for exhibits, studying purposes, or loans, it is important that we check every object’s exact location.

During this morning in particular, we were in the Williams Room, which is used to showcase objects produced in the 17th and early 18th centuries, with a focus on New England furnituremakers. One of the objects is a needlework picture that is inscribed “Christian Williams 1751.”

Becky read it aloud to me, and it sparked me to comment, “My grandmother is a Williams, and we are related to William Williams, who signed the Declaration of Independence.”


Needlework picture by Christian Williams. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1965.3080

 Jokingly I told Becky, “Maybe this Christian Williams is related to me!”

Determined to finish the room before lunch, we continued on. One of the last objects on our list was a corner chair that sits in front of a desk and bookcase. Chairs are typically easy to find numbers on, but this one was proving difficult. We found two different object numbers on the chair, so we grabbed the reference book from the room to search for an answer. We discovered that the chair belonged to William Williams, “The chair is alleged to have been originally owned by William Williams (1731-1811) of Lebanon, Connecticut, and his wife Mary Trumbull, daughter of Gov. John Trumbull.”

Chair in the Williams Room. Museum purchase 1974.0001

I knew that my relative was from Connecticut and married to Mary Trumbull, the sister of the famous painter John Trumbull. Wanting to be absolutely certain, I pull up a picture of my family tree on my phone that my grandmother put together. I quickly find William Williams and confirm that he was married to Mary Trumbull.

Family Tree of author

Surprised by the connection I have just made between my family and Winterthur, I walk over to the chair and study it deeply. The thoughts start to come all at once. My ancestor possibly sat in this chair. My ancestor, who signed the Declaration of Independence, could have sat in this chair, and here I am standing in front of it. What are the odds that this chair from Connecticut would end up here at Winterthur? What are the chances that it is here at Winterthur, and I work at Winterthur? What are the odds that this chair was incorrectly numbered, so we had to do more research on it?

I desperately wanted to know more about this chair and now everything in this room. It is named Williams room after all, so what else could be related to the Williams family? My mind goes to the sampler that read “Christian Williams 1751,” and I ask Becky to look up the sampler’s information. Becky begins to read aloud information on the sampler, “This canvas work picture, dated 1751, was worked by Christian Williams of Norwich, Connecticut, using wool yarns on canvas. Christian (1738–1816) was the eighth child out of eleven, and was named after her grandmother, Christian Stoddard Williams. Her father was the highly respected and influential Reverend Solomon Williams (1701–1776) of Lebanon, who was also the first cousin of the Reverend Jonathan Edwards. Her mother was Mary Porter (1703–1787), also from Lebanon.”

I quickly go back to my family tree on my phone and see that the names match up. William Williams’s parents were Solomon Williams and Mary Porter, so this means that Christian was William’s sister. I move over to the sampler taking in its beauty, trying to take myself back in time. Becky reads through the reference book for anything else that could be related to the Williams family as I take a moment to let my emotions sink in.

Becky quickly finds more to tell me. “The woodwork is from the home of William Williams, built in Lebanon, Connecticut…” She reads another paragraph, “… the room has been installed exactly as it was in the original building, even to the reuse of the original pine floor boards.”

We reread it multiple times to make sure I am understanding this information correctly. The floor and architecture are from William’s house that he grew up in. I hurriedly study the floor and architecture, once again taking in its magnificence and nostalgia.

The Williams Room

I am completely overcome with emotions, almost to the point of tears. Half of me wants to jump up and down and tell everyone I see, “This is my ancestor’s chair!” The other half wants to call every member of my family to tell them the news. Another part of me wants to go back to my office and look through all the files to see what else I can learn about this room and our objects here at Winterthur.

As the days go on, I find the newspaper clipping from September 14, 1984, announcing the sale of William Williams’s house, along with an original photo of the house, in our room files. I find published texts explaining the William Williams connection to the chair being passed down through family members. My co-worker and ancestry guru, Daniela Bono, kindly offers to use her ancestry skills to confirm my family ancestry. Daniela is able to confirm what my grandmother had put together, and we come to understand that William Williams and I are first cousins seven generations removed.

Newspaper clipping from the Williams Room folder from the registration files

This wonderful experience and connection I found here at Winterthur reminded me to not take for granted the history behind each object. Every piece of material culture has a story and a life connected to it, and I was lucky enough that the universe connected me back to a family heirloom. Needless to say, I will never look at the Williams Room the same as I did before. Admittedly, I find myself drawn to walk past the room as often as I can to stop and admire what once was.

Post by Devon Ennis, Registration Assistant, Winterthur

Special thanks to Daniela Bono and Becky Kolpak for helping me with this discovery.

References

  1. “William Williams.” The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, May 28, 2013. https://www.dsdi1776.com/signers-by-state/william-williams/.
  2. Mooz, Peter, and Charles F. Montgomery. A Guide to and Outline of the Winterthur Museum Collections of Arts of the American Home: Including American-Made and Imported Objects, and a Study of the American Arts, with a List of Books and Articles for the Study of the Arts in Early America.. Winterthur, DE: The Museum, 1970.
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